DRESSING UP DANCE.
Right through the nineteenth century and continuing up to the death of Diaghilev in 1929 and a little way beyond, costumes (and settings) played a vital part in ballet, and, for that matter, much of expressionist or modern dance. Nor was a costume regarded as simply decorative; it had an aesthetic and sometimes even dramatic purpose. The designers clustered around Diaghilev in the days of St. Petersburg's influential art magazine, Mir Iskusstva ("World of Art"), particularly Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, were almost obsessed with costume and its possibilities when allied with dance.
They were innovators, revolutionaries in a way, who wanted, among other changes in the whole art of ballet, to bring costumes into a symbiotic relationship with dance. They had been influenced by Isadora Duncan, who used her simple, flowing garments as a counterpoint to her movement, and even more by Loie Fuller, whose diaphanous multicolored veils became an integral part of her expression.
Choreographer Michel Fokine, chief proponent and theorist of the "new ballet" during the first decade of the century, went out of his way, in his famous Principles of Ballet, to lay out the role of the designer, insisting that his approach "does not demand of the scenic artist that he should array the ballerinas in short skirts and pink slippers." Costumes should play a vital part in the expressiveness of dance.
I imagine that Fokine would be horrified at the way dance is costumed today. How many works--in modern dance and in ballet--offer dancers in leotards or impersonal, flouncy skirts and little else? The costumes rarely establish atmosphere or style.
Probably the trend was set and the die was cast when George Balanchine, surely with thrift and economy as the handmaidens to his invention, sealed upon the spartan costuming of his black-and-white ballets. This glorification of ballet practice dress was, of course, in this instance not only a dexterously cheap way to rustle up a new ballet, but also a specific statement of Balanchine's early neoclassicism. In effect, it said, "Concentrate on the dance and the music; watch the body and see it sing!"
Now this is all very well if you are Balanchine or Jerome Robbins, but if you are not, such casual disregard of the art of the costumer is not oversmart. And even Balanchine--who, like Frederick Ashton, didn't seem to have a particularly strong visual sense of anything that remained stationary-perhaps lost something in his firm refusal to dress up some of his ballets.
Take the interesting example of Symphony in C, one of Balanchine's signature pieces. Before it was revived by Ballet Society, later to be absorbed into the original New York City Ballet repertory, it started life with Paris Opera Ballet as Le Palais de Cristal. This original version had incredibly ornate and fancy designs by Leonor Fini, and, frankly, it looked a mess--the ballet had to be viewed through a mirage of chic. So when Balanchine staged his Yankee version, he immediately put it into the black-and-white simplicity, somewhat amended by the fancy Karinska tutus for the women, that we know today. Yet was that possibly throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Balanchine experimented with placing the men in Symphony in C in orangy-yellowish costumes, a short-lived innovation. At the same time he abandoned the grotesquely ugly costumes by Kurt Seligmann for The Four Temperaments in favor of the black and white, which slowly, through a series of choreographic masterpieces, became a City Ballet hallmark and also exerted a profound influence on the entire dance world.
Yet, did Concerto Barocco, for example, or the 1950 version of Ballet Imperial for Britain's Royal Ballet gain anything by losing their original scenery and costumes by Eugene Berman? In the first instance, perhaps yes--the cold crystal clarity of the black-and-white costuming adding to the limpid yet severe baroque architectonics of the choreography. Yet, Berman's designs for Ballet Imperial--never seen in the United States--added immeasurably to the ballet's sense of czarist grandeur and Petipa homage.
Style in costume can help the choreographer. Martha Graham for many years designed her own costumes--she could do haiku-like things with a simple cloak--and she was typical, although always exceptional, of her time. The Diaghilev Ballet, the Ballets Suedois, the post-Diaghilev Ballets Russes, and the emergent companies in England and America all stressed the costumer's art, whether or not he or she was responsible for the work's total design, which was then usually the custom.
But dressing for dance has become almost as anachronistic as dressing for dinner. While as a society we are more concerned than ever with pop couturier fashion, we seem less and less interested in costuming for the theater, particularly, perhaps, in ballet. Obviously, this is in part the result of the trend toward dramatic ambiguity and plotless choreography; yet mood, atmosphere, and expression still exist in this much-sought-after poetic ambiguity. Music itself does not usually spell out literal dramatic utterances, yet this does not confine it to the kind of bland anonymity that we find today in most ballet costuming.
So what should the modern costumer aim for? I think the French had a particular flair for it--especially in those years immediately after World War II, when a certain essential economy was linked to the inventiveness of the new. Boris Kochno, Diaghilev's lieutenant and artistic director of the postwar Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees, had an unsurpassed eye for costumes. I am thinking of Christian Berard's costumes for Les Forains, Jean Hugo's costumes for Les Amours de Jupiter, and Jean Cocteau's costumes for Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, three Roland Petit ballets of the mid-forties that surely exemplified the art of ballet costume. Today, most of our costume designers lack that level of style, taste, and, might one say, class? Class! As is so poignantly sung in the Kander and Ebb musical Chicago: "whatever happened to class?" Or the art of ballet costuming.
Senior editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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|Title Annotation:||dance costuming|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1999|
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